Page images

and even that we do not now recollect any one of his contemporaries who was so great a master of composition. There is a certain mellowness and richness about his style, which adorns, without disguising the weight and nervousness which is its other great characteristic,—a sedate gracefulness and manly simplicity in the more level passages,—and a mild majesty and considerate enthusiasm where he rises above them, of which we scarcely know where to find any other example. There is great equability, too; and sustained force in every part of his writings. He never exhausts himself in flashes and epigrams, nor languishes into lameness or insipidity: At first sight you would say that plainness and good sense were the predominating qualities; but by and bye, this simplicity is enriched with the delicate and vivid colours of a fine imagination,—the free and forcible touches of a most powerful intellect, —and the lights and shades of an unerring and harmonising taste. In comparing it with the styles of his most celebrated contemporaries, we would say that it was more purely and peculiarly a written style,—and, therefore, rejected those ornaments that more properly belong to oratory. It had no impetuosity, hurry, or vehemence,—no bursts or sudden turns or abruptions, like that of Burke; and though eminently smooth and melodious, it was not modulated to an uniform system of solemn declamation, like that of Johnson, nor spread out in the richer and more voluminous elocution of Stewart; nor, still less, broken into that palchwork of scholastic pedantry and conversational smartness which has found its admirers in Gibbon. It is a style, in short, of great freedom, force, and beauty; but the deliberate style of a man of thought and of learning; and neither that of a wit throwing out his extempores with an affectation of careless çrace,—nor of a rhetorician thinking more of his manner than his matter, and determined to be admired for his expression, whatever may be fate of hie sentiments.

His habits of composition were not perhaps exactly what might have been expected from their results. He wrote rather slowly,—and his first sketches were often very slight and imperfect,—like the rude chalking for a masterly picture. His chief effort and greatest pleasure was in their révisai and correction; and there were no limits to the improvement which resulted from this application. It was not the style merely, nor indeed chiefly, that gained by it: The whole reasoning, and sentiment, and illustration, were enlarged and new modelled in the course of it; and a naked outline became gradually informed with life, colour, and expression. It was not at all like the common finishing and polishing to which careful authors generally subject the first draughts of their compositions, — nor even like the fastidious and tentative alterations with which some more anxious writers assay their choicer passages. It was, in fact, the great filling in of the picture,—the working up ni the figured wrft, on the naked and meagre woof that had been stretched to receive it;

and the singular thing in his case was, not only that he left this most material part of his work to be performed after the whole outLne had been finished, but that he could proceed with it to an indefinite extent, and enrich and improve as long as he thought fit, without any risk either of destroying the proportions of that outline, or injuring the harmo:iy and uiiity of the original design. He was perfectly aware, too, of the possession of this extraordinary power; and it was partly, we presume in consequence of it that ne was not only a: all times ready to go on with any work in which he was engaged, without waiting for favourable moments or hours of greater alacrity, but that he never felt any of those doubt« and misgivings as to his being able to get creditably through with his undertaking, to which we believe most authorsare occasionally liabi^ As he never wrote upon any subject of wh:ch he was not perfectly master, he was secure against all blunders in the substance of what he had to say; and felt quite assured, that if he was only allowed time enough, he shoulJ finally come to say it in the very best way of whicn he was capable. He had no anxiety, therefore, either in undertaking or proceeding vith his tasks: and intermitted and resumed them at his convenience, with the comfortable certainty, that all the time he bestowed 03 them was turned to account, and that what was left imperfect at one sitting might be finished with equal ease and advantage 2t another. Being thus perfectly sure both of his end and his means, ne experienced, in the course of his compositions, none of that litt!»1 fever of the spirits with which that operation is so apt to be accompanied. He had no capricious visitings of fancy, which it ira« necessary to fix on the spot or to lose for етег. —no casual inspirations to invoke and to wa't for,—no transitory and evanescent lights to catch before they faded. All that was in hi? mind was subject to his control, and amenable to his call, though it might not obey at the moment; and while his taste was so snre. that he was in no danger of over-working anything that he had designed, all his thought* and sentiments had that unity and congrnity, that they fell almost spontaneously info harmony and order; and the last added, incorporated, and assimilated with the first, as if they had sprung simultaneously from the rame happy conception.

But we need dwell no longer on qualitif* that may be gathered hereafter from the work» he has left behind him. They who lived with him mourn the most for those which will be traced in no such memorial! And prize far above those talents which gained him his high name in philosophy; that Personal Character which endeared him to his friends, and sbe<! a grace and a dignity over all the society in which he moved. The same admirable taste which is conspicuous in his writings, or rather the higher principles from which that taste was but an emanation, spread a similar charm over his whole life and conversation: and gave ! to the most learned Philosopher of his day ! the manners and deportment of the most per feet Gentleman. Nor was this in him the íesult merely of good sense and good temper, assisted by an early familiarity with good company, and a consequent knowledge of his own place and that of all around him. His good breeding was of a higher descent; and his powers of pleasing rested on something better than mere companionable qualities.— With the greatest kindness and generosity of nature, he united the most manly firmness, and the highest principles of honour,—ana the most cheerful and social dispositions, with the gentlest and steadiest affections.

Towards Women he had always the most chivalrous feelings of regard and attention, and was, beyond almost all men. acceptable and agreeable in their society,—though without the least levity or pretension unbecoming his age or condition: And such, indeed, was the fascination of the perfect simplicity and mildness of his manners, that the same tone and deportment seemed equally appropriate in all societies, and enabled him to delight the young and the gay with the same sort of conversation which instructed the learned and the grave. There never, indeed, was a man of learning and talent who appeared in society so perfectly free from all sorts of pretension or notion of his own importance, or so little solicitous to distinguish himself, or so sincerely willing to give place to everyone else. Even upon subjects which he had thoroughly studied, he was never in the least impatient to speak. and spoke at all times without any tone of authority; while, so far from wishing to set off what he had to say by any brilliancy or emphasis of expression, it seemed generally as if he had studied to disguise the weight and originality of his thoughts under the plainest forms of speech and the most quiet and indifferent manner: so that the profoundnst remarks and subtlest observations were often dropped, not only without any solicitude that their value should be observed, but without any apparent consciousness that they possessed any.

Though the most social of human beings, and the most disposed to encourage and sympathise with the gaiety and even joviality of others, his own spirits were in general rather cheerful than gay, or at least never rose to any turbulence or tumult of merriment; and while he would listen with the kindest indulgence to the more extravagant sallies of his younger friends, and prompt them by the heartiest appiobation, his own satisfaction might generally be traced in a slow and temperate smile, gradually mantling over his benevolent and intelligent features, and lighting up the countenance of the Sage with the expression of the mildest aixl most genuine philanthropy. It was wonderful, indeed, considering the measure of his own intellect, and the rigid and undeviating propriety of his own conduct, how tolerant he was of the defects and errors of other men. He was loo indulgent, in truth, and favourable to his friends! —and made a kind and liberal allowance for the faults of all mankind—except only faults oí Baseness or of Cruelty,—against which he

never failed to manifest the most open scorn and detestation. Independent, in short, of his high attainments, Mr. Playfair was one of the most amiable ana estimable of men: Delightful in his manners, inflexible in his principles, and generous in his affections, he had all that could charm in society or attach in private; and while his friends enjoyed the free and unstudied conversation of an easy and intelligent associate, they had at all times the proud and inward assurance that he was a Being upon whose perfect honour and generosity they might rely with the most implicit confidence, in life and in death,—and of whom it was equally impossible, that, under any circumstances, he should ever perform a mean, a selfish, or a questionable action, as that his body should cease to gravitate or his soul to live!

If we do not greatly deceive ourselves, there is nothing here of exaggeration or partial feeling.—and nothing with which an indifferent and honest chronicler would not heartily concur. Nor is it altogether idle to have dwelt so long on the personal character of this distinguished individual: For we are ourselves persuaded, that this personal character has done almost as much for the cause of science and philosophy among us, as the great talent» and attainments with which it was combined, —and has contributed in a very eminent degree to give to the better society of this our city that tone of intelligence and liberality by which it is so honourably distinguished. It is not a little advantageous to philosophy that it is in fashion,—and it is still more advantageous, perhaps, to the society which is led to confer on it this apparently trivial distinction. It is a great thing lor the country at large,— for its happiness, its prosperity, and its renown,—that theupperand influencing classes of its population should be made familiar, even in their unlasked and social hours, with sound and liberal information, and be taught to know and respect those who have distinguished themselves for great intellectual attainments. Nor is it, after all, a slight or despicable reward for a man of genius, to be received with honour in the highest and most elegant society around him, and to receive in his living person that homage and applause which is too often reserved for his memory. Now, those desirable ends can never be effectually accomplished, unless the mariners of our leading philosophers are agreeable, and their personal habits and dispositions engaging and amiable. From the time of Hume and Robertson, we have been fortunate, in Edinburgh, in possessing a succession of distinguished men, who have kept up this salutary connection between the learned and the fashionable world; but there never, perhaps, was any one who contributed so powerfully to confirm and extend it. and that in times when it was peculiarly difficult, as the lamented in dividual of whom we are now speaking: And they who have had most opportunity to observe how superior the society of Edinburgh is to that of most other places of the same size, and how much of that superiority ie owing to the cordial combination of the two aristocracies, of rank and of letters,*—of both of which it happens to be the chief provincial seat,—will be beet able to judge of

the importance of the service he has thns rendered to its inhabitants, and through them, and by their example, to all the rest of the country.

*In addition to the two distinguished persone mentioned in the text, (the first of whom we«, no doubt, before my time,) I can, from my own recollection, and without referring to any who are still living—give the names of the following residents in Edinburgh, who were equally acceptable in polite society and eminent for literary or scientific attainments, and alike at home in good company and in learned convocations:—Lord Hailes and Lord Monboddo, Dr. Joseph Black, Dr. Hugh Blair,

Dr. Adam Fergusson, Mr. John Home, Mr. John Robison, Mr. Dugald Stewart, Sir James Hall. Lord Mcadowbank, Mr. Henry Mackenzie, Dr James Gregory, Rev. A. Alison, Dr. Thomas Brown, Lord VVebb Seymour, Lord Woodhousclee, and Sir Walter Scott ;—without reckoning Mr. Horner, the Rev. Sydney Smith, and Mr. George Wilson, who were settled in Edinburgn for several years, in the earlier pan of the pen«! referred to.




Mr. James Watt, the great improver of the steam-engine, died on me 25th of August, 1819, at his seat of Heathfield, near Birmingham, in the 84th year of his age.

This name fortunately needs no commemoration of ours: for he that bore it survived to see it crowned with undisputed and unenvied honours; and many generations will probably pass away, before it shall have gathered "all its fame." We have said that Mr. Watt was the great Improver of the steam-engine; but, in truth, as to all that is admirable in its structure, or vast in its utility, he should rather be described as its Inventor. It was by his inventions that its action was so regulated, as to make it capable of being applied to the finest and most delicate manufacture?, and its power so increased, as to set weight and solidity at defiance. By his admirable contrivance, it has become a thing stupendous alike for its force and its flexibility,—for the prodigious power which it can exert, and the ease, and precision, and ductility, with which that power can be varied, distributed, and applied. The trunk of an elephant, that can pick up a pin or rend an oak, is as nothing to it. It can engrave a seal, and crush masses of obdurate metal before it—draw out, without breaking, a thread as fine as gossamer, and lift a ship of war like a bauble in the air. It can embroider muslin and forge anchors,— cut steel into ribands, and impel loaded vessels against the fury of the winds and waves.

It would be difficult to estimate the value of the benefits which these inventions have conferred upon this country. There is no branch of industry that has not been indebted to them; and, in all the most material, they lave not only widened most magnificently the field of its exertions, but multiplied a thousand-fold the amount of its productions.

* First published in an Edinburgh newspaper ("The Scotsman"), of the4th September, 1819.

It was our improved Steam-engine, in shon, I that fought the battles of Europe, and exalted and sustained, through the late tremendous contest, the political greatness of our land. It 1 is the same great power which now enables 'us to pay the interest of our debt, and to i maintain the arduous struggle in which Wp are still engaged. [1819], with the skill and capital of countries lese oppressed with taxation. But these are poor and narrow views ! of its importance. It has increased indefinitely the mass of human comforts and enjoyments; and rendered cheap and accessible, all over the world, the materials of wealth ana prosperity. It has armed the feeble hand of man, Id short, with a power to which no I limits can be assigned; completed the do1 minion of mind over the most refractory qualities of matter; and laid a sure foundation for all those future miracles of mechanic power which are to aid and reward the la', bours of after generations. It is to the genius of one man, too, that all this is mainly owing! I And certainly no man ever bestowed such a gift on his kind. The blessing is not onh ] universal, but unbounded: and the fabled inventors of the plough and the loom, who were Deified by the erring gratitude of their rude (»temporaries, conferred less important benefits on mankind than the inventor of our present steam-engine.

This will be the fame of Watt with future generations: And it is sufficient for his race and his country. But to those to whom he more immediately belonged, who lived in h:$ society and enjoyed his conversation, it is not, perhaps, the character in which he will be most frequently recalled—most deeply lamented—or even most highly admired. Independently of his great attainments in mechanics, Mr. Watt was an extraordinary, and in many respects a wonderful man. Perhape no individual in his age possessed ко much and each varied and exact information,—bad read eo much, or remembered what he had read su accurately and well. He had infinite quickness of apprehension, a prodigious memory, and a certain rectifying and methodising power of understanding, which extracted something precious out of all that was presented to it. His stores of miscellaneous knowledge were immense,—and yet less astonishing than the command he had at all times over them. It seemed as if every subject that was casually started in conversation with him, had been that which he had been last occupied in studying and exhausting ;— auch was the copiousness, the precision, and the admirable clearness of the information which he poured out upon it, without effort or hesitation. Nor was this promptitude and compass of knowledge confined in any degree to the studies connected with his ordinary pursuits. That he should have been minutely and extensively skilled in chemistry and the arts, and in most of the branches of physical science, might perhaps have been conjectured; But it could not have been inferred from his usual occupations, and probably is not generally known, that he was curiously learned in many branches of antiquity, metaphysics, medicine, and etymology, and perfectly at home in all the details of architecture, music, and law. Ho was well acquainted, too, with most of the modern languages—and familiar with their most recent literature. Nor was it at all extraordinary to hear the ereat mechanician and engineer detailing and -Jt pounding, for hours together, the metaphysical theories of the German logicians, or criticising the measures or the matter of the German poetry.

His astonishing memory was aided, no doubt, in a great measure, by a still higher and rarer faculty—by his power of digesting and arranging in its proper place all the information he received, and of casting aside anil rejecting, as it were instinctively, whatever was worthless or immaterial. Every conception that was suggested to his mind seemed instantly to take its proper place among its other rich furniture ; and to be condensed into the smallest and most convenient form. He never appeared, therefore, to be at all encumbered or perplexed with the verbiage of the dull books he perused, or the idle talk to which he listened; but to have at once extracted, by a kind of intellectual alchemy, all that was worthy of attention, and to have reduced it, for his own use, to its true value and to its simplest form. And thus it often happened, that a great deal more was learned from his brief and vigorous account of the theories and arguments of tedious writers, than an ordinary student could ever have derived from the most painful study of the originals,—and that errojs and absurdities became manifest from the mere clearness and plainness of his statement of them, which might have deluded and perplexed most of his hearers without that invaluable assistance.

It is needless to say, that, with those vast •ywrces. his conversation was at all times »в

rich and instructive in no ordinary degree: But it was, if possible, still more pleasing than wise, and had all the charms ot familiarity, with all the substantial treasures of knowledge. No man could be more social in his spirit, less assuming or fastidious in his manners, or more kind and indulgent toward? all who approached him. He rather liked In talk—at least in his latter years: But though he took a considerable share of the conversation, he rarely suggested the topics on which it was to turn, but readily and quietly took up whatever was presented by those around him; and astonished the idle and barren propounders of an ordinary theme, by the treasures which he drew from the mine they had unconsciously opened. He generally seemed, indeed, to have no choice or prédilection for one subject of discourse rather than another; but allowed his mind, like a great cyclopaedia, to be opened at any letter his associates might choose to turn up, and only endeavoured to select, from his inexhaustible stores, what might be best adapted to the taste of hie present hearers. As to their capacity he gave himself no trouble ; and, indeed, such was his singular talent for making all things plain, clear, and intelligible, that scarcely any one could be aware of such a deficiency in his presence. His talk, too, though overflowing with information, had no resemblance to Ireluring or solemn discoursing, but. on the contrary, was full of colloquial spirit and ploas.intry. He had a certain quiet and grave humour, which ran through most of his conversation, and a vein of temperate jocularity, which gave infinite zest and effect to the condensed and inexhaustible information, which formed its main staple and 'characteristic. There was a liltle air of affected testiness, too, and a tone of pretended rebuke and contradiction, with which he used to address hisyounger friends, that was always felt by them as an endearing mark of his kindness and familiarity,—and prized accordingly, far beyond all the solemn compliments that ever proceeded from the lips of authority. His voice was deep and powerful.—though hi' commonly spoke in a low and somewhat monotonous tone, which harmonised admirably with the weight and brevity of his observations; and set off to the greatest advantage the pleasant anecdotes, which he delivered with the same grave brow, and the same calm smile playing soberly on his lips. There was nothing of effort indeed, or impatience1, any more than of pride or levity, in his demeanour; and there was a finer expression of reposing strength, and mild self-possession in his manner, than we ever recollect to have met with in any other person. He had in his character the utmost abhorrence for all sorts of forwardness, parade.and pretensions; and, indeed, never failed to put all such impostures out of countenance, by the manly plainnessand honest intrepidity of his language and deportment.

In his temper and dispositions he was not only kind and affectionate, but generous, and considerate of the feelings of all around him . 4nd gave the most liberal assistance and encouragement to all young persons who showed any indications of talent, or applied to him for patronage or advice. His health, which was delicate from his youth upwards, seemed to become firmer as he advanced in years; and he preserved, up almost to the last moment of his existence, not only the full com- i mand of his extraordinary intellect, but all the; alacrity of spirit, and the social gaiety which j liad illumined his happiest days. Hisfriends; in this part of the country never saw him more full of intellectual vigour and colloquial animation,—never more delightful or more instructive,—than in his last visit to Scotland in autumn 1817. Indeed, it was after that time that he applied himself, with all the ardour of early life, to the invention of a machine for mechanically copying all sorts of sculpture and statuary ;—and distributed among his friends some of its earliest performances, as the productions of "a young artist, just entering on his eighty-third year!"

This happy and useful life came, at bat, la

a gentle close. He had suffered some men?.venience through the summer: but was no: seriously indisposed till within a few weekfrom his death. He then became perfectly aware of the event which was approaching and with his usual tranquillity and benevolence of nature, seemed only anxious to par: ont to the friends around him, the mar. source? of consolation which were affords: by the circumstances under which it was about to take place. He expressed his sácere gratitude to Providence for the lengin of days with which he had been blessed. a.v. his exemption from most of the infirmities o: age; as well as for the calm and cheerfE: evening of life that he had been permitted to enjoy, after the honourable labours of the day had been concluded. And thus, full o: years and honours, in all calmness and trar,quillity, he yielded up his soul, without panr or struggle,—and passed from the bosom oí his family to that of his God.

« PreviousContinue »